Taste that threat­ens

Reefs suf­fer amid surg­ing de­mand for jew­ellery coral.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By YURIKO NAGANO

CORAL has been prized in Ja­panese jew­ellery since an­cient times. As early as the Nara pe­riod, in the 8th cen­tury AD, the royal crown of Em­peror Shomu and his Em­press Komyo in­cor­po­rated 10 hang­ing, red jew­ellery coral beads from the Mediter­ranean Sea.

With the de­ple­tion of the Mediter­ranean’s coral re­sources, Ja­pan it­self has in­creas­ingly be­come the main source of top-grade ma­te­rial, and an in­creas­ing de­mand from wealthy Chi­nese has en­cour­aged poach­ing in Ja­panese waters.

The Ja­panese and Chi­nese gov­ern­ments re­cently agreed to work to­gether to stamp out jew­ellery coral poach­ing from the waters of Ok­i­nawa – a rare case of co-op­er­a­tion be­tween the two coun­tries.

Hiroshi Hasegawa, an en­vi­ron­men­tal chem­istry pro­fes­sor at Kanazawa Univer­sity on the Sea of Ja­pan said there was a cor­re­la­tion be­tween il­licit fish­ing of jew­ellery corals and the ris­ing af­flu­ence of Chi­nese con­sumers.

“Jew­ellery corals are very pop­u­lar in China and Tai­wan,” Hasegawa said.

Joji Shi­ma­jiri, se­nior fish­eries su­per­vis­ing of­fi­cer in Ok­i­nawa, said ma­rine pa­trols had ob­served a huge in­crease in the num­ber of fish­ing boats dredg­ing up jew­ellery coral in the waters off Ok­i­nawa and other is­lands of Ja­pan’s south­ern Ryuku ar­chi­pel­ago in re­cent years.

Since last year, Ja­panese pa­trol ships have of­ten sighted as many as 60 coral fish­ing boats at a time be­tween Ok­i­nawa and Miyako­jima Is­land and near Kume­jima Is­land, Shi­ma­jiri said. In 2011, south of Kume­jima, pa­trols sighted a fleet of 30 boats at work.

Th­ese are 100-tonne ves­sels, Chi­nese-flagged and with Chi­nese names, leav­ing lit­tle room for doubt about their na­tion­al­ity, Shi­ma­jiri said.

At an an­nual fish­eries meet­ing be­tween Ja­pan and China in Au­gust, Ja­panese of­fi­cials asked their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts to crack down on coral poach­ers. China had agreed to do so and said it was al­ready bring­ing crim­i­nal prose­cu­tions against il­le­gal Chi­nese op­er­a­tors, said Ak­i­hiro Mizukawa, se­nior fish­eries ne­go­tia­tor at the Ja­panese Fish­eries Agency’s di­vi­sion of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs.

This was the first time Ja­pan had brought up the prob­lem with China in this way, Mizukawa said.

Un­like the shal­low-wa­ter coral reefs that snorkellers or scuba divers love to ex­plore, jew­ellery corals grow in rel­a­tively deep waters, usu­ally over 30m be­low the sur­face, where sun­light barely pen­e­trates.

The global whole­sale mar­ket for jew­ellery corals is worth around US$50mil to US$60mil (RM155mil to RM190mil) a year, with Ja­pan, Tai­wan and Italy be­ing the ma­jor producers.

“The price of jew­ellery coral varies widely, de­pend­ing on the shade of colour, the size and the qual­ity of the coral,” said Noriyoshi Yoshi­moto, pres­i­dent of the Pre­cious Coral Pro­tec­tion and De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­a­tion, a non-profit en­vi­ron­men­tal group in Tokyo.

A deep red va­ri­ety, known as “oxblood” coral, now mostly pur­chased from Ja­pan, is the most cov­eted, rarest and most ex­pen­sive. Usu­ally found around 110m be­low the sur­face, a top grade large oxblood coral in per­fect con­di­tion, with no holes, marks or cracks can sell for as much as ¥20 mil­lion per kilo­gramme (RM636,690), or “about four times the price of pure gold,” Yoshi­moto said.

The Ja­panese gov­ern­ment has not been able to ag­gres­sively pros­e­cute poach­ers be­cause al­though they are op­er­at­ing in waters within Ja­pan’s ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone they are of­ten do­ing so in an area agreed un­der the Ja­panese-Chi­nese fish­eries pact to be neu­tral ter­ri­tory for fish­ing pur­poses.

Poach­ers are a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem be­cause they not only har­vest the corals il­le­gally, but they do so in an ag­gres­sive and en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing way, Shi­ma­jiri, the Ok­i­nawa fish­eries su­per­vi­sor said.

Chi­nese poach­ers typ­i­cally trawl for coral us­ing drag nets that de­stroy the en­tire eco­log­i­cal sys­tem of the ocean floor around the coral reefs.

“We’ve been see­ing the poach­ers use nets as long as 300m, width of 20m to 30m … and rocks the size of soc­cer balls at­tached at the end to weigh the nets down,” Shi­ma­jiri said.

By scrap­ing the ocean floor, the Chi­nese ves­sels are de­stroy­ing the habi­tat of highly prized fish, such as Ja­panese am­ber­jack, or aka­machi, and ruby snap­per, another mem­ber of the grouper fam­ily, he added.

In con­trast, Ok­i­nawa boats are un­der 20 tonnes in size and use un­manned ve­hi­cles to go deep in the ocean to pick out only fully grown corals. In fact, the Ja­panese coral in­dus­try is so tightly reg­u­lated that only one Ja­panese op­er­a­tor is al­lowed to har­vest corals in the Ok­i­nawa area to avoid over-fish­ing, Shi­ma­jiri said.

No­zomu Iwasaki, a ma­rine biology pro­fes­sor at Ris­sho Univer­sity, said he wit­nessed what ap­peared to be a Chi­nese ship tak­ing jew­ellery coral il­le­gally. He said Tai­wanese op­er­a­tors who used to poach jew­ellery coral some years ago may now be op­er­at­ing Chi­nese ships.

Chi­nese de­mand for jew­ellery corals is so high that 90% of corals har­vested in Ja­pan are now sold to China via Tai­wan, Iwasaki said. He said prices had in­creased ten­fold in the past nine years.

The Tai­wanese gov­ern­ment has been clamp­ing down on il­licit coral fish­ing since 2009, said Gary Sheu, di­rec­tor of the press and in­for­ma­tion di­vi­sion at the Taipei Eco­nomic and Cul­tural Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Of­fice in Ja­pan.

Trans­fer­ring the own­er­ship of Tai­wanese ves­sels di­rectly to Chi­nese op­er­a­tors is not per­mit­ted, and Tai­wanese fish­ing ves­sels are pro­hib­ited by law from pur­chas­ing poached corals from Chi­nese op­er­a­tors. If such sales take place both par­ties are li­able to prose­cu­tion, Sheu said.

Mean­while, re­searchers in­clud­ing Iwasaki have been in­ves­ti­gat­ing just how much jew­ellery coral is grow­ing in Ja­panese waters: ac­cu­rate fig­ures have not un­til now been avail­able be­cause of the ex­treme depth at which the coral grows.

Iwasaki and his team have been send­ing down re­motely con­trolled un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cles on week-long sur­veys, once or twice a year for the last seven years in the seas off Kochi, Kagoshima and Ok­i­nawa pre­fec­tures in south­ern Ja­pan, chart­ing 10 jew­ellery coral lo­ca­tions so far. — In­ter­na­tional New York Times

Stolen from the deep: red corals are plun­dered from reefs to meet the grow­ing taste for coral jew­ellery. — eL­IZ­a­beTH Wood

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